Michael Van Valkenburgh is one of a few hot-shot landscape architects who’s known for large, high-visibility projects, like his redesign of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House post-9/11. He landed on my radar thanks to that project, which is local to me.
So I was happy to discover his article “Landscapes Over Time” in the latest Landscape Architecture Magazine, in which he pleads with his profession to pay attention to what happens after their designs are installed. Plants change (doh!) and designs need continuing attention, and not just from the mow-blow crew. Van Valkenburgh has seen far too many parks and gardens be created and then left to become shabby, thanks to anemic maintenance budgets and neglect by the original designers, who tend to lose interest soon after the photos are taken.
A prominent exception to that rant is a landscape architect we all know and love – Beatrix Farrand, who served as landscape consultant to Princeton University for many years (a task now performed by Van Valkenburgh). He quotes from Princeton’s website:
Farrand preferred to be called a ‘landscape gardener’—not an architect…. The only woman among the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects, Farrand [believed that] a living landscape—affected by seasons and the passage of time—requires constant attention. Farrand maintained an ongoing relationship with many clients in order to supervise the changes in her evolving canvas. Several times yearly, she strode through the Princeton Campus looking at every tree and bush and giving specific instructions for pruning, planting, and cultivation.
Van Valkenburgh asserts that “You are much less likely to care about maintenance if you don’t really love plants. And, for me, the most appealing landscape architecture is synonymous with a love of plants.” Like us gardeners, he prefers open spaces with plants in them. But guess what! Many “justly celebrated” contemporary landscape architects don’t know squat about plants (my language), and have to hire horticulturists to select the plants for their designs.*
And lawn-haters will love this: “Plenty of works with plants don’t really embody love of those plants. The classic case, of course, is the American corporate landscape made of sod and trees for the Mow, Blow, and Go approach, designed to require the least possible care. I have never seen a beautiful example of it.”
Respect for the “Horticultural Workers”
More passages I love:
No matter how skilled and artistically inclined horticultural workers are (and they are often extremely talented), they are generally perceived as declasse, left out of design discussions and poorly paid. (Since my parents were farmers, and my father went on to oversee the grounds at a ski slope, I find this perception particularly distasteful.) Heaven forbid that a landscape architect should hang out with them, much less join them, wielding a saw or a hoe, fingernails dirty.
The old name for horticultural worker was gardener, a word that connoted a great deal more dignity in the preindustrial world. Perhaps now with the green movement, the local food movement, and the promotion of urban farming, gardening will be honored more. It needs to be.
And he writes about maintenance workers who’ve found designers to be “snotty and uninterested in their input”. (Reminds me of the tension sometimes found between Master Gardeners, designers and garden writers. Or between psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. Et cetera through probably every field.)
Gardens not the Same as Nature
I’ll just keep on quoting. “Standing in the way of conceiving landscape architecture as (to a significant degree) gardening is the widespread illusion that designed landscapes can take care of themselves, since, obviously, the woods of Vermont, the plains of Texas, and the shores of Cape Cod can look beautiful without tending. But designed landscapes exist to meet human needs, and pure nature can’t be counted on or asked to do that.” For example, it took an amazing amount of work to make Central Park look so natural.
And he cites a piece of conceptual art that proves his point. One New York artist “put a fence around an abandoned lot, called it Time Landscape, and asked us to reverentially view what nature did with the site.” Not surprisingly to anyone who knows plants, it quickly became an eyesore.
Van Valkenburgh sees his profession undergoing major changes, like paying more attention to designs over time. But from what I can tell as a follower of the profession and faithful reader of Landscape Architecture Magazine, no field has shifted as quickly to address environmental concerns, and not because they’re more virtuous than anyone else. Civic and other large-scale clients now demand maximum sustainability.
*I’ve corrected my original misreading of the Van Valkenburgh article, which cited Piet Oudolf as a consulting horticulturist for landscape architects, NOT as a landscape architect who consults with horticulturists. Sorry!